Veteran cabbie Ian Gordon alights from his cab at the KK Knowledge School to teach a lesson in London geography to a classroom full of aspiring cabdrivers. To gain a London cabbie’s license, a candidate has to memorize all 25,000 streets and the locations of another 20,000 landmarks within a six-mile (9.6-kilometer) radius of Charing Cross.
by Roff Smith
Photograph by Elizabeth Dalziel
LONDON—Steve Scotland had better reason than most for thinking he knew London like the back of his hand.
Not only was he a native Londoner, born and bred, but he’d spent years working as a chauffeur in the city, driving his passengers wherever they wanted to go, finding the shortcuts, negotiating the city’s traffic-clogged streets swiftly, accurately, and with a minimum of fuss.
So he quietly fancied his chances of passing “The Knowledge” test—the demanding test of London’s back streets and landmarks that confronts anyone who wishes to join the elite ranks of London’s cabdrivers.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” Scotland says.
In pursuit of this dream he went to the Public Carriage Office, which regulates taxis in London, and signed on for The Knowledge.
After paying his fees and taking a map test and some written exams, he got hold of a motor scooter and set off to familiarize himself with his city in a whole new way.
Although “Knowledge Schools” exist to offer advice and help would-be cabbies prep for the series of examinations you have to pass along the way, the intensive learning of the city’s streets and landmarks, the thousands of miles of exploration by scooter or on foot, is very much a do-it-yourself affair, all of it on your own time and at your own pace.
Nearly five years later, and with more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) clocked on the scooter, Scotland is still at it—although now, at least, it’s with an end in sight.
A good enough score on his next test, or “appearance,” in a fortnight’s time, and he’ll have done it—cracked The Knowledge and earned himself the coveted green-and-white badge of a London cabbie.
“I had no idea how tough this would be,” he says. “I really thought I knew the city well, but what I knew, or thought I knew, was nothing compared with what it takes to do The Knowledge.”
The five years he has spent on the quest is fairly typical. The Knowledge does not come easy.
Forget Mensa and armchair brainteasers. The Knowledge of London is a real-time, street-level test of memorization skills so intense that it physically alters the brains of those who pass it.
To qualify for that elusive green badge, you need to learn by heart all 320 sample runs that are listed in the Blue Book, the would-be cabbie’s bible.
You will also have to commit to memory the 25,000 streets, roads, avenues, courts, lanes, crescents, places, mews, yards, hills, and alleys that lie within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.